Dog Ear
Don't use contractions (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 13 September 2012 00:00

I was downtown with the Missus watching the play Billy Bishop goes to War. It’s a fun performance, a one-man show which follows the exploits of Billy Bishop, a top-ranked fighter ace from World War One. Oddly, I’d seen it thirty years ago and suddenly it had popped up again at the local playhouse.

After the show, the performers (all two of them (okay, a one-man show, with a second guy on the piano)) sat down and fielded questions from the audience, a nice intimate Q&A. Someone in the audience asked Timothy Williams how he did all the characters (different COs, mechanics, and even high-brow dames) that played roles in Bishop’s life.

Williams' answer was interesting. He explained that in a one-man show, an actor has to conserve energy and vocal effort. The character’s costume might be no more than a pair of glasses or a coat turned out. It comes down, really, to the voice. And mostly to inflections. One has to convey bombastic natures, disdain, or earthiness without needless shouting or effort. And in that, it’s just a matter of the character’s speech patterns.

I found that very interesting. As a writer, I’m fully aware of this. When making a character, you can spend paragraphs explaining the cut of their clothing, their hairstyle, their mannerisms. You can even give them a spell-checker-befuddling Scottish brogue. But the character won’t stick. Readers won’t remember it.

It comes down to the patterns of the character’s speech. A glowering dockhand should talk in short sentences, even fragments. A deceptive salesman or oily lawyer should have sentences that double back on themselves. A hen-pecking wife should literally repeat herself. And a drunk shouldn't’t slur, he should ramble.

This might seem obvious but it’s not quite so when one is in the writer’s chair. When one is threading a story together, it’s too easy to lose the characters in the plot, to make everyone sound alike but wear different hats. If you find yourself throwing a lot of “the astronaut said” or “the governor answered” in your story, you’ve probably lost your speaking style. The dialog cadence alone should identify who is speaking.

In Fire And Bronze, my novel surrounding the Carthaginian Foundation Myth, I leaned this trick first-hand. The story is driven in places by class warfare. There are characters low-born and high. And in one of my pre-publication passes, I focused on just this. Just with the simple trick of pointedly allowing the commoners use contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t) and the nobles not (do not, will not, cannot) added a level of identification to their speech. We have no evidence that Canaanites used contractions – I’ve read the Aramaic grammar rules and there is no official recognition of such devices (though they left their vowels off their words, so their language had other unwritten shortcuts). But I think it’s safe to bet that Phoenician merchant-princes appealing to kings for a trade concession spoke differently from the deckhands of their ships. And if one assumes a difference in cadence, one should write it.

Don’t use contractions unless you’re common. Literally!




What price glory? (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 06 September 2012 00:00

Way back when I was finalizing Early Retyrement for publication, someone in my family (who will remain nameless) sent me information concerning an author's exchange, a deal where  you'd send your book to someone in exchange for their's, and the understanding was that you've give it no less that four stars on Amazon. Yes, it was one of those I-rub-your-back-ditto deals.


I remember thinking at the time what a perfectly nauseating business practice it was. And then, recently on Facebook, a fellow writer noted a service where you'd pay $1000 or more and get 50 reviews, all glowing and positive and as sincere as anyone who attempts to "educate" you towards their politician, cause, or religious belief. You can read it HERE - its a wonderful example of Yankee Ingenuity (can you detect my sneer?).

I'm happy to say that Amazon shut him down, that at least one time virtue won, but we all know about evil. It always comes leaking back like a viscous oil.

So maybe I'm too squeamish for publication. I know that it's all about press, that even noble books have "Best Read Ever" and "A real pageturner", attributed to quick-scanning quid pro quo authors or wanna-get-noticed reviewers. Harry Potter relied on legions of soccer mommies to talk up the fact their their brooding spawn were actually reading anything, and so a marginal story went off like a rocket, with it's own movies and theme parks and everything.

So publicity sells books, and everything you do, from phony amazon reviews (not guilty) to book shows (guilty) to weekly writing blogs (guilty) on an author's website (guilty) along with Facebook notification (guilty). And that's the question here; at what point does a writer become a shill? When do we leave the art behind and become blue-light-special hucksters?

I can't tell you an answer here. This one isn't as easy as writing tricks and editing skills. This gets down to your soul, and what you'll do to spread your written word (and perhaps garnish your success). Modesty is not a survival trait. In my corporate existence, I see blowhards and self-promoters rise through the ranks, and all of them lack even the basic modesty of a hound dog lazily licking his balls in the sun. I've seen writers jump on all the book show panels they can (even one's they have no earthly idea of) just to get facetime and book dollars. I've seen just about every version of snake-oil, false-prophet, shoot-the-moon, barnstorming, fast-talking, silver-tongued, bottom-deck lying humans are capable of.

The pool we contemplate is dark and dank and rather filthy.

I guess the only thing I can advise is that we are all different. With my stodgy values, morals and ethics, I'm unlikely to get ahead by pawning bad writing on an inattentive public. And that's fine. I've figured where I draw my own, personal (and perhaps sometimes hypocritical) line between what is right and wrong, true and false, in my quest for literary recognition.

Each writer needs to reaffirm his or her goals and gains from writing. Perhaps you are only penning unimportant memoirs, little more than a personal diary you are willing to share. Or perhaps you just enjoy the art of creation, and making those funny little characters do funny little things. Or perhaps you have a marketing plan, with timeline and checkpoints, complete with a publicity firm.

Some of us will show up on Jon Steward, smiling and trying to be cool.

Others of us will smile and say, "Why yes, I did write a book on Amazon? It's just a silly little thing... What, you'd like to buy one? Well, how nice of you. Thanks."

We all make our own decisions, regardless of what others say and thing. So find where your comfort zone is, look a little beyond it (to see if you are not cheating yourself) and put your mark (big or small) on the world. Doing anything else just makes you crazy.


Last Updated on Sunday, 02 September 2012 20:48
Meds (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 30 August 2012 00:00

Those who check out my bike blog might remember the injury I dealt myself trying to save the planet (and a little rental car cash) HERE.

Ended up at a doc-in-the-box, getting pills prescribed for the pain. Looked on the label and saw that they were sedatives that might make me, well, sedate.

The first day, I learned the power of the word ‘might’. I hung on my desk for about three hours before limping home to crash into bed. So tired.

The day following, I took my pills like a good little boy and went to work. All morning I was like a machine – a machine without batteries, flywheels and a rusted starter. I couldn’t keep those numbers moving. I tried to clean up some of our backfill paperwork and ended up stalling three times. I was really foggy.

But the chilling moment came at lunch. Usually I’ll have a seat by the pond and work on the latest story, novel, edit or pity-rip (i.e. critique of someone else’s writing). Today I was planning on working on a short story I might post up to an anthology in a month or so.

So I sat out by the pond, opened the tinytop, and looked at the screen.


The muse wouldn’t come out and play.

Sometimes she’s a cranky bitch, one that needs jump-starting. I’ll just start reading what I’ve written before and suddenly I know where I’m going. Ignition! Witty phrasing and off-key analogies are mine to pluck and use. I’ll find myself nodding as clever shit just happens, there on the screen. If you’re a writer, you’ll know the moment where words flow and plot-thoughts leap ahead like roadbed graders a hundred miles out from the railhead. So neat and so artistic and so moving. It’s why I write, all for that bliss-state of creativity.

But on this day, nothing. I couldn’t even focus on my prior writings. I couldn’t even seem to recognize what I’d been doing before. I’ve seen people who just can’t write – you ask them to come up with something creative and they just look at you. And I’ve always felt pity for them. But now, that feeling was horror.

Jeez, like, what if it didn’t come back? That part of me I’d always accepted as a strength, my natural-18 creativity, was gone. I didn’t get looks or athletics or personality or anything else. It was my creativity that was mine. And with a single small pill, it had vanished.

I went back to my desk in a state of funk. I simply couldn’t remember how I wrote stories. That synergy of plot-action-words wouldn’t kickstart. During the afternoon I tried basic writing drills (like describing something on my desk in one word, or generating a backstory for the next person passing my cube) and none of it sparked. I got home, took a long nap, and since my leg was no longer hurting (aching, but not hurting) I gave the pills a miss.

Later that evening I opened my tinytop to check my virus settings and ended up browsing my latest story. Saw a place I could tighten and did, pulling out a devil-word “that” and reading the remake over – much smoother. And then it hit me that the muse was back. I could write again. Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I knocked out a couple of paragraphs just for the joy of it. Looked critically at one of them and swapped some sentences around so the meaning would build in a more logical sequence. Caught a double-use of a word. All those things I’d known, that heady enthusiastic resourcefulness, it was back.

Those pills. Those pills. I find myself frowning when I think of them. Imagine there was a pill that would make you blind, or paralyzed, or mute for twelve hours. Would you take it?

I’m not taking mine. Not even if it hurts.

Well, not unless it hurts bad.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 August 2012 13:29
Fans from Hell (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 21 August 2012 16:42

I’ve heard tell that one of the drives for Steven King’s novel Misery came from his reaction to fans stealing bat statues off the tops of his gateposts. I don’t know if it’s true, but it should be. We all dream of adoring fans popping up at opportune moments to gush about how great we are. I’ve had that happen exactly once (when a person at a train event, realizing who I was, went delightfully ga-ga about Fire and Bronze). Very, very nice.

But what we don’t think about are the over-cooked fans, the ones who haunt us, pester us, bother us, even endanger us. It’s hard to imagine why a person would worship you so much that they could cause you pain, suffering, and even death. But for every thousand people who really like your work, how many fans might have their bolts cross-threaded? One? Two? Five?

I’ll mention two times this has occurred to me. In the first, it wasn’t even a fan. I was manning a book for Early ReTyrement at OASIS 25, a sci-fi convention. When you do the booth, you need to be warm and inviting (like a Venus flytrap). It’s a specific pose of casual interest/disinterest, standing at the ready to toss your pitch, spark their interest, and don’t cross your arms!

So one guy comes up and I tell him about the book. Turns out he knows about the Persians and siege of Tyre. We talk. And talk. And suddenly I realize he’s like a steam engine with a jammed regulator – he’s not going to stop. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Forty. I see customers eyeing my flashy book art, considering, but then deciding it’s worth the hassle of getting around blabbermouth. I made all the social conventional break-offs; “Well, gosh, it’s been nice chatting” and “Oh, look at the time”. He was stuck to me like shit to my shoe. Finally I had to look to Tim Robinson, next booth over, and ask him to watch things – I had to go to the bathroom. Excusing myself, I bolted out, looked at my reflection for about ten minutesin the toilets, then sheepishly snuck back. Tim looked up and smiled at my desperate gambit.

Sales for the hour: $0

But that’s just enthusiastic nerdishness. The more disconcerting version if this recently took place on my other site, my pen-name site.

When I wrote Fire and Bronze, I wanted to bring some erotica into the mix, to spice it up. In this, I researched such writings on the web and found that pretty much all of them, regardless of flavor, fix or fantasy, were badly written. After finishing the book, just for fun, I wrote a couple of short erotic stories which earned great receptions. Shortly afterwards, I submitted to an online publisher and had two collections (five stories in each) published. The pay is rock bottom but the art spec is the bomb. Going forward, I established a site elsewhere to post whatever comes to mind, finding myself with something like a hundred downloading fans and a lot of nice feedback. And for freaks, the folks on my site are very, very friendly.

Except one guy. He originally entered and talked about how I was the best erotic writer out there (I should learn to identify over-praise. I really should). And that was fine; people join all the time. I was focused on a multi-chapter fantasy anyway, trying to get it to play out. It started with one or two comments from him, that my hero is not heroic enough (I explained that he was just a POV, nothing more), and that the situations weren’t just titillating, they were evil. No, not that, that they were going to be evil. That the storyline was winding towards the hero’s inevitable madness, the heroine’s fall into despair, the implosion of the sun, everything. At first I thought he was joking. I just chided him, pointing out that I produce nothing but slap-n-tickle. But no, oh no, it was a trick, a misdirection, one he could see coming.

On the day my car got rear-ended (I wasn’t in a good mood), I came home to find that he’d responded to seven different chapters, each posting more raucous than the last. These I manually deleted, then posted him offline that he was really close to getting bounced. I didn’t have to do this. I was giving him a chance. His response was a plea to stay my hand until the last chapter came out, when he could see, with his own two eyes, the evilness I was plotting. Fine, okay, he could stay, if only so he could see that I was following through with a plot device whereas the hero’s missing girlfriend was right under his nose all the time. So we had an understanding.

A day or two later, I came home and found him scuffling with two of my regular long-term readers, arguing a two-front war against all reason and logic that everything was going to end bitterly and badly.

And that was it. I bounced him. Never had to do that before.

It bothers me, of course, that there are people out there who fixate on something, be it Jodie Foster or your upcoming surprise conclusion or whatever, and turn an easy-going writer/reader relationship into a field of contention. It annoys me further that I have to take action against these people, to fling them through the lintels and onto the cobblestones because they can’t behave civilly.

I love writing. I love positive feedback (and even some negative feedback).

I don’t like being a bouncer.

Keep this in mind. Not all of writing is fun. I’ve posted about agents and copyright and poorly-attended speeches and all the other pitfalls. And now you know about ‘Fans from Hell’.

Just keep your head down and keep writing. What else can you do?


Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 16:56

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